July 19

What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?

Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy (July 19, 1773).

“THE ROYAL American MAGAZINE, Or UNIVERSAL REPOSITORY.  [To be published monthly.]”

Nearly three weeks after Isaiah Thomas inserted “PROPOSALS For printing by SUBSCRIPTION, A NEW Periodical Production, entitled, THE ROYAL American MAGAZINE, Or UNIVERSAL REPOSITORY,” in his own newspaper, the Massachusetts Spy, those proposals appeared in the July 12, 1773, edition of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy and continued throughout the rest of the month.  In those iterations, the proposals did not benefit from the same privileged place.  Thomas ran the lengthy advertisement in the first two columns on the first page of the Massachusetts Spy.  Nathaniel Mills and John Hicks, in contrast, used smaller type and condensed the proposals to a single column on the final page of their newspaper.  The proposals ran alongside all sorts of other advertisements.  Still, they appeared in their entirety.

That included an address “To the PUBLIC” in which Thomas encouraged prospective subscribers to contemplate the value, not just the utility, of the magazine.  He contrasted magazines with newspapers, “only noticed for a day; and then thrown neglected,” asserting that magazines contained literature, a category that encompassed all manner of inquiry, that merited preserving and passing down from generation to generation.  Thomas lamented, “Before the art of printing was known, the sons of science suffered greatly; and it is beyond a doubt that for the want of that useful vehicle the PRINTING PRESS, in those days, many very valuable essays of the ancients have been buried in oblivion.”  In his role as printer, Thomas could play a part in preventing that from happening again, but he needed subscribers as partners in that endeavor.  He explained to prospective subscribers that “In this polite age when printing flourishes, the man of genius may hand his performances to the public, who may give them to their children, and so transmit them down to posterity.”  Subscribers thus played as important a role as any “man of genius” who composed essays and the printer who served as a broker in disseminating them.

Thomas also asserted that the colonies had a particular need for a “NEW Periodical Publication” in the form of a magazine so “the productions of men of genius might be more universally known.”  Colonial printers produced other periodicals – weekly newspapers and annual almanacs – but the lack of monthly magazines, according to Thomas, “has long been complained of by men of the greatest ingenuity in the American world.”  The printer imagined that those men “would undoubtedly much oftner favour the public with essays, instructive and entertaining to all classes of men, if there was a suitable periodical publication for their insertion.”  Booksellers imported magazines from London that featured works by European authors, but those magazines rarely included essays composed by colonizers in North America and the West Indies.  For the most part, they did not capture distinctively American perspectives or experiences.

The Royal American Magazine provided a forum for both American and European authors.  “Several gentlemen of know abilities,” Thomas announced, “have kindly promised to favour the public through THIS channel, with essays on various subjects for instruction and amusement.”  He pledged that “Their productions will no doubt fill a considerable part of this work,” but also acknowledged that he would draw content from “British Magazines, [and] Reviews.”  Thomas emphasized that this involved “selecting from the labours of our European brethren,” but he wished to prioritize American content.  To that end, he requested “the assistance of the learned, the witty, the curios and the candid of both sexes throughout this extensive continent, and hopes they will favour him with their correspondence for the public benefit.”  Thomas apparently imagined a place for women as both readers and contributors to “this American performance” or magazine.

The call for subscribers and contributors eventually radiated out from Boston, appearing in newspapers published in other cities.  The Adverts 250 Project will examine other aspects of the lengthy subscription proposals while tracing their dissemination in American newspapers.  Thomas expected the proposals to circulate so widely that “printers and booksellers in AMERICA,” from New England to Georgia, would compile lists of local subscribers on his behalf.

June 24

What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?

Massachusetts Spy (June 24, 1773).

“SUBSCRIPTIONS are taken in by I. THOMAS the printer and publisher.”

Near the end of May 1773, Isaiah Thomas, the printer of the Massachusetts Spy, placed a notice in his own newspaper to announce that the following week he would publish “PROPOSALS for printing by Subscription, The ROYAL American MAGAZINE.”  He may have meant that he would distribute the proposals as as a broadside or handbill separate from the newspaper or he may have meant that they would appear in the next issue of the Massachusetts Spy.  Perhaps he did print separate subscription papers, though none have survived.  I frequently argue that newspaper notices provide evidence of a greater number of advertising ephemera circulating in eighteenth-century America than have been preserved in research libraries, historical societies, and private collections.  On the other hand, the busy printer may have delayed publishing the proposals by several weeks.  When they did appear in the Massachusetts Spy on June 24, they ran on the front page.  The savvy printer gave the proposals a privileged place.

Extending nearly two columns, the proposals included Thomas’s purpose for publishing the new magazine, a “PLAN” for the contents, and the “CONDITIONS” or details about the price, the paper, the type, and delivery options.  Subscription proposals for books, newspapers, and magazines usually included all those elements, though not necessarily at such great length.  Thomas, however, exerted significant effort in convincing readers to subscribe.  In explaining his purpose for publishing the magazine, for instance, he declared that “Newspapers are known to be of general utility, but not so fit to convey to posterity the labours of the learned, as they are, most commonly, only noticed for a day and then thrown neglected by.”  In contrast, “Monthly Publications are preserved in the libraries of men of the greatest abilities in the literary world.”  In the last decades of the eighteenth century, many magazine subscribers in America saved each issue for six months and then had them bound into a single volume to display on the bookshelves of their permanent libraries.  Thomas acknowledged how subscribers treated magazines and their specialized content differently than newspapers in that regard.

In outlining the “PLAN,” Thomas described how he would go about acquiring items to publish in the Royal American Magazine.  He declared that he “has engaged all the British Magazines, Reviews, &c. and all the Periodical publications in America” and “from those will be selected whatever is new, curious, and entertaining.”  He did not intend merely to reprint content from those “British Magazines.”  Instead, he emphasized a process of discernment in “selecting from the labours of our European brethren,” but promised prospective subscribers that he “shall not fail of making the strictest searches after curious anecdotes, and interesting events in British America.”  To that end, he engaged in an eighteenth-century version of crowdsourcing: “the publisher now requests the assistance of the learned, the witty, the curious, and the candid of both sexes, throughout this extensive continent, and hopes they will favour him with their correspondence for the public benefit.”  Although the magazine would carry some European content, Thomas aimed to produce a distinctively American publication.

In addition, Thomas offered a premium or gift to subscribers “to complete this PLAN,” a free copy of “Governor HUTCHINSON’S History Of the MASSACHUSETTS-BAY.”  That book alone “will be worth the cost of the magazine.”  However, subscribers would not receive a copy at the outset.  Instead, they would receive a portion of the book with each issue of the magazine, “printed in such a manner as to be bound up by itself, and on a larger type than the magazine.”  Thomas planned to insert the first pages of Hutchinson’s History “at the end of the first number” or issue and continue “until the whole is finished.”  To make the premium even more enticing, subscribers would also receive, gratis, “copper plate prints, exclusive of those particularly for the magazine.”  Thomas hoped that the free gift would make subscribing to the magazine even more attractive.

Although the subscription proposals for the Royal American Magazine included many of the same elements as proposals for books, newspapers, and magazines that circulated in the colonies in the eighteenth century, Thomas introduced innovative methods of encouraging colonizers to subscribe.  Among those, he pledged to make pieces written in America a priority for publication.  He also promoted a premium for subscribers, asserting that the free gift alone covered the cost of a subscription.  Even with these marketing efforts, it took some time for Thomas to launch the magazine.  He published the first issue in January 1774.

January 11

What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?

Providence Gazette (January 11, 1772).

“The Names of the Subscribers to any of the above will be printed.”

Robert Bell, one of the most influential booksellers of the eighteenth century, worked to create an American literary market both before and after the American Revolution.  In the early 1770s, he published an American edition of William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England.  He promoted this project to supporters of “domestic manufactures,” goods produced in the colonies.

In an advertisement in the January 11, 1772, edition of the Providence Gazette, for instance, he addressed the “Gentlemen of Rhode-Island, and all those who are animated by the Wish of seeing NATIVE FABRICATIONS flourish in AMERICA.”  Such “FABRICATIONS” included not only printing an American edition but doing so “on American Paper.”  That eliminated two kinds of imported goods, “the last British Edition” that Bell consulted in producing his American edition and paper produced in England.  In turn, this provided employment for papermakers and printers in the colonies.  In addition, those who purchased the American edition acquired it for a bargain price.  Bell indicated that the first volume of the British Edition “is sold for above Six Dollars,” but he charged “the small Price of Two Dollars” for the American edition.  The enterprising bookseller also hawked an “American Edition of ROBERTSON’s History of Charles the Fifth” and accepted subscriptions for another proposed project, “HUME’s History of ENGLAND.”  Colonizers could support the local economy by stocking their libraries with a significant number of American editions.

In the process, they could also receive recognition for their support of “NATIVE FABRICATIONS.”  Bell concluded his advertisement with a note that the “Names of the Subscribers to any of the above will be printed.”  Buyers had the chance to see their names in print in good company with others who had the good taste and intellectual acumen to read (or at least purchase) these works by Blackstone, Robertson, and Hume.  While relatively few friends and acquaintances might see any of these volumes in subscribers’ homes or offices, anyone who perused the lists, often bound into the books, would see who purchased copies of their own.  Bell hoped that a desire to support domestic manufactures would convince colonizers to buy his American editions, but he hedged his bets by also offering the opportunity to have such support publicly acknowledged.

September 18

What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago this week?

Final page of Robert Bell’s subscription notice for Blackstone’s Commentaries that may (or may not) have been distributed with the September 17, 1771, edition of the South-Carolina and American General Gazette.

“Peaceable, yet active Patriotism.”

Yesterday, the Adverts 250 Project featured Robert Bell’s subscription notice for Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England that Accessible Archives included with the September 17, 1771, edition of the South-Carolina and American General Gazette and addressed the difficulty of determining whether the subscription notice originally accompanied the newspaper.  Today, the marketing strategies deployed by Bell merit consideration.

First, however, consider the format of the subscription notice, a four-page flier.  On the first page, addressed “TO THE AMERICAN WORLD,” Bell encouraged prospective customers throughout the colonies to purchase American editions rather than imported books.  It could also have been published separately as a handbill, similar to the second page featuring two advertisements for books “Lately Published” by Bell, “YORICK’S Sentimental Journal Through FRANCE and ITALY” by Laurence Stern and “HISTORY OF BELISARIUS, THE HEROIC AND HUMANE ROMAN GENERAL” by Jean-François Marmontel.  On the third and fourth pages, Bell promoted William Robertson’s “HISTORY of CHARLES the FIFTH, EMPEROR of GERMANY,” a work he widely advertised in newspapers throughout the colonies, and other American editions.  The flier concluded with a note defending “the legality of literary publications in America.”

Both before and after the American Revolution, Bell established a reputation as one of the most vocal proponents of creating a distinctly American literary market served by printers and publishers in the colonies and, later, the new nation.  Bell advanced both political, economic, and cultural arguments in favor of an American book trade during the imperial crisis.  He opened his address “TO THE AMERICAN WORLD” by proclaiming that “THE inhabitants of this continent have now an easy, and advantageous opportunity of effectually establishing literary manufactures … the establishment of which will absolutely and eventually produce mental improvement, and commercial expansion.”  In addition, purchasing books published in America would result in “saving thousands of pounds” by consumers as well as keep the money on that side of the Atlantic.  Colonists could pay lower prices and, in the process, what they did spend would be “distributed among manufacturers and traders, whose residence upon the continent of course causeth the money to circulate from neighbour to neighbour, and by this circulation in America there is a great probability of its revolving to the very hands from which it originally migrated.”  Supporting domestic manufactures, including American publications, would create stronger local economies, Bell argued.

“American Gentlemen or Ladies” had a patriotic duty to lend their “auspicious patronage” to such projects by informing their local bookseller or printer that they wished to become “intentional purchasers of any of the literary works now in contemplation to be reprinted by subscription in America.”  In so doing, they would “render an essential service to the community, by encouraging native manufactures.  In turn, they “deserve[d] … grateful remembrance—By their country—By posterity.”  These subscribers would also contribute to the enlightenment of the entire community, the “MAN of the WOODS” as well as the “MAN of the COURT.”  In the hyperbolic prose he so often used in his marketing materials, Bell declared that “Americans, do certainly know, if universal encouragement is afforded, to a few publications of literary excellence … they will assuredly create sublime sensations, and effectually expand the human mind towards this most rational, and most dignified of all temporal enjoyments.”  In addition, he described himself and other American printers and publishers as engaging in “peaceable, yet active Patriotism” in making inexpensive American editions of several “literary WORKS” available to consumers.

Bell frequently inserted advertisements with similar messages into newspapers from New England to South Carolina, but those were not his only means of encouraging “THE AMERICAN WORLD” to support domestic manufactures and the creation of an American literary market that would result in self-improvement among readers far and wide.  In subscription notices (which may have been distributed with newspapers on occasion), book catalogs, and broadsides, he advanced the same arguments much more extensively than space in newspapers allowed.

January 9

What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago this week?

New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury (January 7, 1771).

“ADDRESS To those who possess a PUBLIC SPIRIT.”

When bookseller Robert Bell inserted a notice about upcoming auctions in the January 3, 1771, edition of the New-York Journal, he devoted the second half of the advertisement to promoting an American edition of William Robertson’s multivolume History of the Reign of the Emperor Charles V.  He addressed the “real friends to the progress of Literary entertainment, and to the extension of useful Manufactures in a young country.”  Bell advanced a “Buy American” marketing strategy during the period of the imperial crisis that ultimately culminated in the American Revolution.

Later that week, he continued his advertising campaign with another notice in the January 7 edition of the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury.  Bell included some of the copy from the earlier advertisement in this much lengthier iteration.  Both versions highlighted the phrase “THE LAND WE LIVE IN” by printing it in all capitals and centering it on a line of its own within the advertisement, drawing attention to Bell’s proposition that consumers who purchased this work also contributed to the “elevation and enriching” of the colonies.  He enhanced that argument with a headline that described the entire advertisement as an “ADDRESS To those who possess a PUBLIC SPIRIT.”  Potential customers, Bell asserted, had an opportunity to engage in acts of consumption that possessed political significance.

At the same time, the bookseller declared that the American edition was a bargain compared to imported alternatives.  He charged “the moderate price of One Dollar each Volume” for the three volumes, noting that the “British edition cannot be imported for less than Twelve Dollars.”  Colonists could acquire the work at a significant savings, a reward for their role in creating a distinctive American marketplace for the production and consumption of books.  Only the first volume had gone to press, so the advertisement also served as a subscription notice.  Bell encouraged “Gentlemen who have rationality enough to consider they will receive an equivalent” to an imported edition to sign on as subscribers, simultaneously flattering and cajoling prospective customers.

Bell informed the “Encouragers of printing this Grand Historical Work” that they “may depend upon ebullitions of gratitude,” but that was only an ancillary reason for purchasing Robertson’s biography of Charles the Fifth.  He presented their own edification and their responsibility for promoting domestic manufactures in the colonies as the primary reasons for buying the first volume and subscribing for the subsequent second and third volumes.

January 3

What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?

New-York Journal (January 3, 1770).

“The promotion of which vivifieth individuals, and tendeth towards the elevation and enriching of THE LAND WE LIVE IN.”

Robert Bell was one of the most innovative, industrious, and influential booksellers in eighteenth-century America, known for the larger-than-life personality he cultivated and the entertainment he provided at auctions.  Bell’s auctions were events, public spectacles that amused those in attendance.  The bookseller was also known for his work in creating and promoting a distinctly American market for books, especially after the revolution.  He got started on that enterprise, however, several years before the colonies declared independence from Britain.

In the first issue of the New-York Journal published in 1771, Bell launched a new advertising campaign that announced book auctions on Friday and Saturday evenings.  In addition to giving information about the auctions, he devoted half of the advertisement to a nota bene about the “American Edition of Robertson’s Charles the Fifth.”  Rather than purchase imported alternatives, Bell asserted that the “real friends to the progress of Literary entertainment, and to the extension of useful Manufactures in a young country” would acquire the edition produced in the colonies.  Over the course of his career, Bell became known for the verbose and convoluted prose he deployed in his marketing materials.  He used labyrinthine language even by eighteenth-century standards, including in this advertisement for an American edition.  Consumers were already familiar with arguments in favor of domestic manufactures in the wake of boycotting imported goods, but Bell approached the endeavor with more verve than proponents when he trumped that “the promotion” of American products “vivifieth individuals, and tendeth towards the elevation and enriching of THE LAND WE LIVE IN.”  The bookseller advocated on behalf of American commerce and American culture simultaneously, arguing that consumers could enhance both through the decisions they made when buying books.

Bell did not merely present customers with options for reading “Divinity, History, Novels, and Entertainment.”  Instead, he challenged them to think about how their participation in the marketplace could aid the American cause and contribute to the formation of a distinctly American identity.  He intensified those arguments as his career continued, building on marketing strategies from the early 1770s.